On March 27, 1977 on the island of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, a bomb threat was called in to the airport. It was later determined that this was a
false threat, however, little did anyone realize the tragic chain of events that would be unleashed by this seemingly minor event.
Pan American Airlines flight 1736, a Boeing 747 carrying 380 passengers plus crew, had departed New York, heading for Las Palmas. At the same time
KLM flight 4805, also a Boeing 747 carrying 234 passengers plus crew, from Schipol in the Netherlands was also heading to Las Palmas. Both flights
arrived over the island only to be told that the airport was closed due to the bomb threat. Pan Am 1736 requested permission to orbit the airport
until it was reopened, but was ordered to divert with KLM, and several other flights, to Rodeos.
The airport at Rodeos was way too small to handle such large airplanes. The airport consists of one runway, with a parallel taxiway, and several
smaller taxiways connecting them. It was at Rodeos that the rest of many minor incidents would come together into the largest tragedy ever in the
history of aviation.
Once on Rodeos, after the airport at Las Palmas was reopened, the Pan Am flight was ready to depart, however they were blocked in by the KLM flight,
which was refueling. The KLM flight, piloted by KLM's chief training pilot at the time, Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten. He was considered a
very famous pilot in the Netherlands at the time, having filmed several commercials for KLM. He had been flying planes since 1947, and with KLM since
1951. He had accrued 12,000 flight hours and 1500 in 747s. However, most of the time he was either in the simulator, or training other pilots. He
apparently chose to refuel on Rodeos instead of Las Palmas to save time.
The first major problem that arose that day was the decision for the KLM crew to either remain overnight on Rodeos, and force the airline to pay for
hotels, or risk breaking Dutch law and going overtime on their crew duty day. In the Netherlands, it's a criminal offense for a pilot to be on duty
for longer than 15 hours. This includes time on the ground. If the crew waited for the airport on Las Palmas to reopen, they would risk breaking
that law. However, the decision to wait for Las Palmas to reopen was made.
After refueling, the KLM crew was told that Las Palmas would be reopening soon, and planes were going to be allowed to depart Rodeos. The KLM flight
was given permission to taxi down the runway, and perform a 180 degree turn, lining them up for departure. Pan Am 1736 was cleared to taxi down the
runway, turning off at the third taxiway, and moving down the taxiway to the end of the runway, to await KLM's departure. As the flights were
taxiing a heavy fog rolled in, blanketing the area. As the KLM flight was moving down the runway, they received their Air Traffic Control clearance
to Las Palmas. This clearance was ONLY for the flight, NOT
for takeoff, as Pan Am 1736 was moving down the runway behind them.
Pan Am 1736, upon reaching taxiway C3 chose to continue to C4 instead of turning off the runway. To turn off at C3 would require two 135 degree
turns, which in a plane the size of the 747 would be almost impossible. Taxiway C4 on the other hand was a much shallower turn off and would be
possible to take.
Sometime around this time, the KLM flight having received their ATC clearance, began to take off. The copilot called the control tower and said they
were taking off. At this point, the tower called them to tell them to stand by, and Pan Am 1736 called to say they were on the runway. The KLM
flight engineer asked if they were clear of the runway. The control tower called Pan Am 1736 and told them to report clear of the runway. The Pan Am
replied with "Roger, we will report clear." This was the last transmission made by the Pan Am crew. The flight engineer on the KLM flight again
asked if Pan Am was clear of the runway. A few seconds later the Pan Am crew saw the taxi lights of the KLM, and realized they were shaking, which
meant the plane was moving. The captain of the Pan Am attempted to turn off and go through the grass to get off the runway. At about the same time
the KLM crew realized that the Pan Am flight was still on the runway. Capt van Zanten desperately tried to get the plane into the air, and did suceed
in getting airborne, but the landing gear and belly of his plane hit the Pan Am 747 on the center of the fuselage, just over the wing. Both planes
burst into flame, with the KLM crashing back to the runway and exploding killing everyone on board instantly. 321 passengers and 14 crew on Pan Am
1736 were killed in the explosion and fire. 54 passengers, and 7 crew survived, including all three flight deck crew members. There were a total of
583 people killed in the crash.
Several factors that were looked at included miscommunications between the tower and both planes, missed radio calls, bad weather, and Capt van
Zanten's impatience to take off due to the fact that if they were forced to stay it would cost KLM to put up the passengers overnight. One of the
things speculated on was Capt van Zanten's experience as chief instructor pilot for KLM. It is believed that he had come to view his role as
instructor as him being right when he told the pilots he was training something.
After the NTSB and Spanish accident reports were released, the Dutch government launched their own investigation. The NTSB and Spanish investigators
placed the blame almost entirely on the KLM flight crew, with some blame being placed on the control tower, and communication problems. The Dutch
report went the entire opposite direction, and said the KLM crew had done absolutely nothing wrong, was following procedures, and the PAN AM
crew had been the cause of the accident, along with the tower controller. They claim that the tower had a football game on the television, and were
distracted by this and not paying attention to the two planes. They also contend that the controller had limited knowledge of the capabilities of the
747, thus ordering them to make the 135 degree turns. The Dutch also contend that these turns could have been made by the Pan Am crew.
It's interesting to note how different the American/Spanish reports are from the Dutch report. The Dutch report comes across as trying to protect
one of their most famous pilots, and keep him from being blamed for the deaths of amost 600 people. The Spanish report agrees with the American
report in almost every aspect. The Dutch and Americans can be said to have an agenda as the NTSB wouldn't want to blame the US crew for screwing up,
and the Dutch wouldn't want to blame the KLM crew for screwing up, but the Spanish were fairly neutral in the situation, as their only involvement
was that the Canary Islands are their territory and it was a Spanish controller.